COMMENTARY: Welcome to the Caymans

The success of Urban One Casino proves that Richmond remains in dire need of campaign finance reform.

Virginia has long been described as the Cayman Islands of political campaign financing. And sadly, it won’t change until residents demand their representatives in the General Assembly step away from the hog trough of free food, booze and unlimited campaign contributions and pause to remember who elected them and why.

The need to be like Caesar’s wife – above reproach – applies to Democrats and Republicans alike.

The ongoing casino controversy in Richmond is the most recent example of the need for reform. As such, it provides a perfect lesson underscoring the need for serious campaign finance reform as well as the need for consequences for violating the rules.

Consider Urban One, the $560 million casino resort of choice that Mayor Levar Stoney recently presented to City Council in the hope that it will be placed on the ballot in November. One of the investors in the Urban One Casino, Greg Cummings, is also one of three people who created the Black Opportunity Council on Sept. 11, 2020. Within a few days of its founding, the group doled out $45,000 to local election campaigns. Cummings did not respond to repeated requests for comment by press time.

According to information available on Virginia Public Access Project, the group gave $10,000 to the campaign of Amy Wentz on Sept. 20, who unsuccessfully ran against 8th District council member Reva Trammell. On Sept. 28, the group gave Stoney $20,000, and $5,000 each to Cynthia Newbille, president of City Council representing the 7th District, and Ellen Robertson, representing the 6th District. On Oct. 9, it gave $2,500 to Katherine Jordan, a candidate for 2nd District seat, and on Oct. 20, it gave $2,500 to Ann-Frances Lambert who was running for the 3rd District council seat. Both Jordan and Lambert won their races.

The fact that various candidates received money from a group affiliated with the Urban One casino, is troubling to Tad Berman, a longtime activist who scrutinizes the gaming and gambling industry in Virginia on his website, Virginians for Integrity in Horse Racing and Casino Gambling.

Berman, a self-described watchdog, has been maintaining his website and blog for more than 10 years. In a recent interview, he explains that he is so fed up with what he sees as a corrupt practice that he fired off a letter to the Virginia Office of the Attorney General with a copy to Richmond city attorney, Haskell Brown. In his letter, Berman requests that the attorney general open an investigation into the Black Opportunity Council, which he describes as “a clandestine organization that was formed in September 2020 by a One Casino investor whose apparent only purpose was to donate money to Richmond City Council members, candidates, and Mayor Stoney in an effort to influence them regarding the One Casino proposal.”  

Berman believes that since so many members of Richmond City Council, along with Stoney, received political contributions from One Casino or its investors that at a minimum, members should be forced either recuse themselves from voting or to return the money. Or both.

From his original letter: “By accepting money from the BOC, I feel as though certain council members have compromised their ability to vote objectively. … on whether to approve or disapprove the One Casino proposal. At the very least, those who accepted donations from the BOC should return that money and recuse themselves from the vote … I also think this standard should be applied to councilman Michael Jones in regard to a $5,000 contribution One Casino chairman Alfred Liggans made to him in January.” 

At the May 24 City Council meeting, Stoney introduced a presentation on Urban One. The proposal to place the referendum on the November ballot is now scheduled to go to a Richmond City Council committee June 7 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., at which point the date to bring it to a full-City Council meeting will be determined.

It might seem that any elected official with an ounce of integrity who will vote on a matter that could result in financial benefit to a donor should know better than to accept even a free beer or pretzel, much less thousands of dollars. However, while unethical, such action is not illegal in Virginia as long as the elected official declares the contribution. Politicians in Virginia during the last General Assembly session killed legislation that would have prohibited elected officials from using campaign money for personal expenses. The bill, sponsored by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, cleared the House of Delegates by unanimous vote but failed to survive the Virginia Senate. 

In 2016, Alan Suderman, a reporter with the Associated Press, wrote that “behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion.”

Suderman noted that Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, or any corporation or union, and then spend the money on themselves. 

And until Virginia voters demand greater integrity and accountability from elected officials, those officials will continue to think they are in the Cayman Islands.

Correction: Katherine Jordan won the 2nd district seat not the 1st.


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